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Gearing up: Bike-sharing comes to Lebanon

A small Lebanese business is encouraging commuters to ditch their cars and reduce congestion, allowing Beirut to breathe again
Beirut by Bike's first bike stations in Beirut, which will open to the public in May (Photo courtesy of Nell Bazz/Beirut by Bike)

BEIRUT - In a densely populated city with a poor public transport system, four-wheeled vehicles rule the roads in Beirut. But a new bicycling sharing system hopes to change that.

From taxi drivers with their vintage 70s Mercedes to the imported Bugattis and Ferraris favoured by the richest in society, cars are everywhere.

Public transport in the country is neglected and unreliable. The easiest way to get around is with a car service, or shared taxi. Informal micro-buses also zoom up and down the coast of the country, and within cities.

Congestion, inevitably, is a huge problem. During rush hour journeys which should take half an hour can end up taking several. 

Sustainable transportation

Jawad Sbeity, the founder of Beirut by Bike, hopes the new bike-sharing stations will allow the country to embrace cycling as a means of “public transport”.

“It’s about sustainable transportation,” he says.

“Every person in Lebanon has his own car… or two cars,” he adds, saying that even if car use went down by 20 percent, “you would feel it, it would be something”.

Sbeity set up Beirut by Bike 20 years ago, a bike club which sought to educate people about cycling while also giving people a chance to rent bikes for the cost of 5,000 Lebanese pounds ($3.31) per hour.

Jawad Sbeity, founder of Beirut by Bike (Photo courtesy of Nell Bazz/Beirut by Bike)
When he launched the business in 1997, he started with 60 bikes and he now has 2,000, which are mostly rented by the hour by families and young people meandering along Beirut’s Corniche at the weekend.  

The new bike stations - he hopes to set up 50 around the city by 2020 - are targeting a different group: commuters.

“We want to tell people to drive to the outskirts of Beirut, park their car, and then come inside the city by bike.”

“Hopefully this will help minimise the traffic.”

Huge car parks currently lie empty: one near the port has space for 3,000 cars, another to the south of the city has space for 5,000.

But Sbeity knows it is not going to be easy to convince people to set their cars aside.

“It will take ages, I know that. It’s something of a dream.”

The first bike station, opening in May, is in downtown Beirut, and the following ones - 25 over the next three years - will be situated near university campuses, malls and areas with lots of offices and apartments.

Cycling made easy

Unlike similar schemes in London and Paris, Beirut’s new bike-sharing system has no major banking sponsor, and Beirut by Bike is funding it alongside Noni Liban, a toy and bike shop.

A sister scheme in Byblos, up the coast from Beirut, is set to launch in two weeks, and has the funding of Lebanese bank IBL, according to Sbeity.

He hopes eventually to have stations in Tripoli in the north and Sidon and Sour in the south of the country.

Users will be able to pay by credit or debit card, via an app, or with a pre-paid card, this option being aimed at students who often do not have credit cards, Sbeity says.

There will also be discounts for weekly or monthly passes, “just the same as [how] metro systems work in Europe," he said.

He has not yet finalised the price scale, but this has not stopped the scheme from attracting criticism.

When photos of the first station were shared widely on social media last week, the response was mostly positive, according to Sbeity, but there were some detractors who said that the country's roads were dangerous and not equipped for bikes.

On Facebook, Mirna Raslan said: “This is a very nice initiative... however, there is a lot more to work on before we could ride a bike on the messy roads of Beirut.

"The garbage is starting to pile up again in some areas; the pavements are blocked by cars or construction sites; there is no lane for the bicycles; I believe the municipality should set the priorities properly before spending the money. Beirut is not only the pretty downtown!"

'However, there is a lot more to work on before we could ride a bike on the messy roads of Beirut. The garbage is starting to pile up again in some areas; the pavements are blocked by cars or construction sites; there is no lane for the bicycles'

Betty Bacha commented: “[Setting up] a bike station while there is no 'bike lane' and safety measures for bikers on any road neither in Beirut nor anywhere else in the country, means either the one who [had] this idea is stupid, or it is just a publicity stunt, or this is one more 'deal' of the Beirut municipality corrupt 'deals'. Which one of the three is it?”

The municipality is not involved in funding the stations, but Sbeity said he is lobbying it to introduce bike lanes in the centre of the city, connecting downtown to Hamra in the west and to the Corniche. Although Sbeity says he has the support of many in the city council, there is no clear timeline yet for the bike lanes, as it needs official government approval. But he was confident it would happen soon.

It would be a first step, Sbeity says, to encouraging more Beirutis to take up cycling.

Bike lanes would not mean cyclists were immune to danger, “but it will give you the confidence to try it and to tell the drivers that 'this is my lane'".

Siwar Kraytem's book ABCycling in Beirut (Photo courtesy of Siwar Kraytem)

Where to start?

For a city as chaotic as Beirut, where do beginners start?

Siwar Kraytem has been an avid cyclist for years, and this year she is publishing a guidebook on cycling in the city.

“The book includes topics like how to gear up; how to dress; what stuff to carry with you; how to plan your route; safety considerations, and it gives you insights on the types of bikes out there.”

ABCycling in Beirut: a Guide to Cycling in the City of Organised Chaos is also a thing of beauty, as it began as her graphic design project at university, and includes pull-out sections and posters.

What Kraytem loves about having a bike in Beirut is the freedom it gives it her.

With minimal public transport, and unless you have a car yourself, nights out, trips to the supermarket, visits to the doctor - unless in walking distance - are often only possible if you can secure a lift, or find a taxi.

With a bike, Kraytem says, “You don’t have to ask people for a ride, you don’t need to stick around just because you need to wait for someone to give you a lift.”

'You don’t have to ask people for a ride, you don’t need to stick around just because you need to wait for someone to give you a lift'

“You are totally independent," she added.

A growing culture

And while Beirut might not initially seem like the most bike-friendly city, it has its unique qualities which make it the perfect cycling spot, according to Kraytem.

“Beirut is so tiny, you can get from east to west in under 30 minutes,” Kraytem says. “It has beautiful weather, at least 300 days a year, and it’s perfect for saving money, and [reducing] traffic and frustration.”

She added that it can easily replace the trip to the gym, keeping commuters fit.

For Marc Mouzawak, a snowboarding instructor, cycling is his primary means of transportation around the city.

Aside from bike lanes, which he says are desperately needed given the “crazy driving” in the city, he also longs for bike racks, as he often finds himself chaining his bicycle to “electric poles, or bins - you have to get creative”.

There is also a lack of street lights, he says, and little general awareness of cycling among drivers, but he encourages everyone to try it.

“Cycling is the smartest and most ecological way to get from one point to another,” he says. “It means there is less traffic, and less pollution, and it is also healthier.”

'Cycling is the smartest and most ecological way to get from one point to another'

In the two decades since Beirut by Bike opened, the whole attitude towards cycling in Lebanon has changed, Sbeity says, thanks to the emergence of several other bike collectives.

“On any night in Lebanon, there are group bike rides happening somewhere. The culture is growing.”

When Sbeity opened the company in 1997, people told him then, "Are you crazy? What are you doing?’”

“Now in Lebanon you can see many bike shops all over, it is booming," he said.

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